COMMENT: Ecodefense!’s Slivyak: The time to reconsider nuclear energy is now

Still from BBC video

Publish date: March 28, 2011

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – How has the Japanese nuclear crisis affected the economic prospects of nuclear energy? Can an accident of Fukushima scale happen at a Russian nuclear power plant? Bellona’s regular contributor, co-chairman of the Russian ecological group Ecodefense!, explores the gloomy possibilities – and hopeful alternatives.

Two weeks ago, Japan was hit by a devastating earthquake that resulted in the still ongoing nuclear crisis at the nuclear power plant (NPP) Fukushima Daiichi. The 9.0-level earthquake did not destroy the station’s reactors or the on-site cooling ponds with spent nuclear fuel – but it did do fatal damage to the plant’s power infrastructure, which was left without an external energy source and was unable to supply electricity to the station’s cooling systems.

The loss of external power supply was what set in motion the ensuing catastrophe. This is a crucial element in the story – especially so if we want to understand whether a repetition of the Japanese scenario is possible in Russia without the risk of a major earthquake as part of the equation. And alas, the answer to this question is yes, it is possible.

A situation that involves failure of a reactor’s safety systems – which depend on external power supply – can develop at any nuclear power plant, including those in operation in Russia. Anything is possible after that – including reactor core meltdowns, mass-scale releases of radiation, and even explosions. All Russian nuclear power plants are situated near cities with populations ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people – all of whom will have to be evacuated. Furthermore, at issue is not a hypothetical scenario – the likelihood of which was just sadly proven at Fukushima – but a real threat: In 1993, storms raging through Russia’s far northern Kola Peninsula knocked out a power line providing electricity to Kola Nuclear Power Plant. Two out of the four back-up diesel generators failed to start and the station was pushed to the edge of catastrophe that could have potentially reached the scale of Chernobyl. In a similar incident in 2000, an outage in the grid caused a power supply failure at a plutonium-producing reactor operated at the Ural-based nuclear reprocessing facility Mayak. It was through sheer force of miracle that grave tragedies of Fukushima scope were narrowly avoided.  

Yes, the age of the Fukushima reactors played a major role as well – the newest was in operation for 32 years, while the oldest was commissioned 40 years ago. The Japanese government was warned repeatedly, by experts with national and foreign organisations alike, of safety risks associated with the old reactors – much as of those posed by the cooling ponds holding vast amounts of spent nuclear fuel. But in Japan, the nuclear energy industry has always been a “sacred cow” and airing doubts about safety at nuclear power plants has always been regarded as bad form. This, too, played its fatal role: When a government turns a deaf ear to critical opinion and oversight agencies are so weak they exist for no other reason than to serve as an industry’s accessory with hardly more than a promotional or decorative purpose, safety risks increase multifold. The myth that the Japanese industrial ethos has created about nuclear power plants’ safety trapped and enslaved those who created it. For years, Japan was brought up as a handy example anywhere where a need arose to quell the public’s apprehension toward the development of “absolutely safe” nuclear power. No one will ever use this argument anymore.    

Russia following the “Samurai’s way”?

Judging by what the Japanese disaster is revealing to us, the situation in Russia bears a frightening resemblance. We are retreading this “Samurai’s way” step after every single step. In Russia, too, it was only two weeks ago that discussing safety deficiencies of Russian nuclear power plants was considered bad manners. The state’s highest-ranking officials, with the head of the Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, at their side, would routinely demonstrate to their voters their full support of nuclear energy – the safest, cheapest, and most environmentally friendly of technologies that Russia has mastered and is ready to share if the right remuneration offer is made. In fact, we hear the same assurances today as well.

The reality, unfortunately, is much less convincing than the politicians’ speeches. Twenty-two out of Russia’s 32 reactors are quite old and unsafe and either have already or are about to exceed the 30-year limit on their service life set by project designers. Just like Japan, Russia wants to continue to run these reactors beyond their 30-year operational life spans. Fifteen-year extensions are given on all of these old reactors’ operating licenses – without an ecological impact evaluation required by the law. One loathes to think of how the events in Japan may be repeated in Russia – but it looks as though our chances for a repeat performance are growing the more we ignore them.

Meanwhile, the Russian nuclear industry has recovered from the shock of Fukushima and launched an all-out offensive, filling TV screens and media pages with quotes praising the virtues of Russia’s new reactor projects – the world’s safest, capable of withstanding earthquakes of any magnitude. Again, a frightening resemblance to our neighbour on the east, where, up until March 11, 2011, the government would hear regular reports assuring the authorities that the country’s nuclear power plants would endure any kind of calamity, be it plane crashes or bombardment with meteor showers – and that’s not including new reactors, which are even better. 

The Russian reality is such that in the course of 2009 alone – the latest reporting period for which the Russian federal industrial and ecological safety oversight agency, Rostekhnadzor, has data available – 491 (!) instances were registered where Russian organisations responsible for designing and producing NPP equipment were found in violation of the industry’s rules and standards. In certain cases, the oversight authority threatened to revoke licenses because of the low quality of the products supplied. 

On the surface – at the theoretical stage – all nuclear energy projects look absolutely safe, but as they are translated into practical reality, safety becomes dependent less on the formulas and more on real defects in the equipment or errors made by the personnel who run it – factors that are impossible to rule out completely. In export projects, over 3,000 complaints over equipment quality have been forwarded to Russian nuclear specialists responsible for the construction of Tianwan NPP in China. In fact, the Chinese, in a surprising move announced just days after the disaster in Fukushima broke out, put a freeze on all pending NPP project approvals and ordered full safety checks of the reactors already in operation.

Again, we see how alike the situations in Russia and Japan really are: Facts that don’t cast the nuclear industry in a favourable light are not discussed openly in a society that receives clear signals from the very top of the ruling elite: Hold your tongue, everything is “under control,” our plans to develop nuclear power are intact and will not change.

There is, therefore, no pressure brought on the nuclear industry that would force it to take the needed safety enhancement measures. One could debate forever which reactor designs are safer and whether nuclear power plants should be built in seismic-risk areas, but the clear fact in evidence is that the worst of all possible situations now presents itself in the Russian nuclear industry where safety is concerned.

But Rosatom is currently managing at least three new projects in development in earthquake-prone areas – the Belene site in Bulgaria, Akkuyu NPP in Turkey, and a new reactor in Metsamor in Armenia. Add to that the floating nuclear power plants, of which the first in a projected series of seven is expected to be towed next year to its place of deployment in the tsunami-prone area of the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East. None of these ideas has yet been subjected to revision. On the contrary, we keep hearing assertions that everything will be totally safe. The Japanese, too, used to listen to these guarantees for decades and believed that their nuclear power plants were well protected against earthquakes (as well as plane crashes and everything else that may or may not happen on this planet). What they are hearing now, daily, is that radiation is not detrimental to human health. For those who live in Tokyo and are now drinking radioactive water from the tap, there is no longer any choice to be made in the matter. The Russians still have their options.   

The money factor

None of the above, however, changes the fact that it is the economic factor – not the fear of new accidents that is still holding many nuclear nations in its grip – that will continue to determine the development of nuclear energy in the future. It is too early yet to draw any definitive conclusions – the disaster is still ongoing, radioactive contamination is still spreading, and the world has just set about analysing the causes. But one thing can be said with confidence: The events at Fukushima have triggered a wave of global transformations in what has become known as the concept of “nuclear renaissance.”

Many countries have already started revising their commercial nuclear energy plans. Statements made by India and China, where they announced they were freezing their nuclear programmes, were perhaps the most surprising. Up to the moment these steps were taken experts agreed unanimously that, unlike the West, these Asian nations would not stop building new nuclear power plants despite Fukushima. The prevailing opinion now is that even if India and China reverse their post-Fukushima policies, they will impose stricter safety requirements on their new NPP projects, which will lead to significant increases in reactor prices – and it’s not clear that the buyers will be happy with the new price tags.

Even before Fukushima, prices for new reactor projects were quite high to begin with. In the 1990s, the average price of a 1,000-megawatt reactor unit hovered at $1 billion. Today, Rosatom sells its VVER-1200 models – the new design dubbed AES-2006 (for NPP-2006) – for between $3 billion and $4 billion, depending on the properties of the geographical location in the customer country and foreign policy considerations of the day. Rosatom’s prices, though still lower than those asked by the French for their EPRs, are well approaching Areva’s pricing range.

Still, the expensive reactors of Russian-make have been quite affordable even to customers with less than paying capability, seeing as Rosatom’s export reactor deals have almost always been negotiated with an offer of a credit line from the Russian state budget as part of the package. The tradition of building nuclear power plants on the Russian builder’s money has long been in existence. In 2000, a special report was released on the eve of that year’s Group of Eight summit that focused on export credits issued by developed nations for nuclear power projects and described the fund allocation system used to support export reactor construction. Eleven years ago, Russia’s share in this global “aid” spending was assessed at around $5 billion. Today, by most modest estimates, Russia’s contribution is six to eight times as large. Turkey alone, for its project in Akkuyu, was promised a nuclear power plant costing $20 billion – to be paid for fully, again, by the Russian taxpayers. Credit terms are very customer-friendly in every deal Rosatom negotiates with its clients – complete with rather hazy repayment requirements, with deadlines pushed ahead decades into the future.

Reactor construction inside Russia – and developments abroad

And now on to the large-scale nuclear energy development programme Rosatom has envisioned for Russia, where, according to varying information available, between twelve and 40 new reactors are planned to be built within the next 20 years.

To be sure, today’s capabilities of the Russian machine-building industry do not allow for construction of more than one full set of reactor unit equipment per year, so it’s hard to imagine just how Rosatom will want to go about implementing “the goals of the party and the government.” A reflection of that capacity shortage could already be seen last year, when the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation – the federal body with a mandate to exercise control over fulfilment of the federal budget – performed an audit of the Ministry of Energy and concluded that 60 percent of reactors that were planned to be commissioned before 2015 would actually be launched sometime later. Earlier this year, one of the deputy prime ministers of the Russian Federation said the government intended to roll back its expenditures on Rosatom’s investment programme. It has nothing to do, of course, with the government’s sudden decision to withdraw its support of the nuclear industry – it’s just that the erstwhile declared rates of reactor construction both domestically and abroad proved simply impossible to follow through on. Still, no one is considering abandoning the massive nuclear plan already devised and the current difficulties will apparently just result in delays, though quite lengthy ones.      

How is this programme financed within Russia? Most of the expenses are paid from the federal budget. Additionally, Rosatom was to attract outside investments which, as was earlier planned, would beef up the programme’s coffers with considerable private funds. The state nuclear corporation’s own profit is yet another source of funding. According to a statement made by Kiriyenko in 2009, for instance, the Baltic NPP project under construction in Russia’s westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad Region – this plant is hoped to sell export power to customers in the European Union – will be built with Rosatom’s own money and with no additional expenses allocated from the state budget.

In light of the nuclear tragedy in Japan, such countries as Israel, Great Britain, the US, Germany, and Switzerland, among others, have either already made a decision to cease further development of nuclear energy or are engaged in a heated debate on the issue, which will at the very least lead to a prolonged freeze on investments needed for their “nuclear renaissance” projects. It seems obvious that Spain intends to stay the course of parting ways with nuclear energy, and the hopes that Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had of reviving nuclear power in his country seem to have crumbled as well. In Italy, the population had voted definitively in a 1987 national referendum to close down all nuclear power plants in operation at the time.

No private investor from Western Europe or the United States will want to place their bets on nuclear power while the very idea of whether or not to proceed to use it remains at the core of this reinvigorated public debate. Even before Fukushima, the World Bank, as well as a number of regional development banks, abstained from investing in nuclear energy on principle. The banks’ considerations were by no means based on any sentimentalities such as what some like to refer to as “radiophobia” – but instead on the extremely poor economic performance results demonstrated by the nuclear power industry almost everywhere where it is used in developed countries. 

Fukushima’s reverberations and what they mean for Rosatom’s deals

With the entrance of Fukushima, Rosatom lost whatever hazy prospects the corporation thought it had of attracting private investments to begin with. There is a very high likelihood that Russia’s vast nuclear domain stands to lose a number of contracts despite the enormous support it has enjoyed from the government and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Even before the events in Japan, Europe was actively blackballing Rosatom as the latter attempted to persuade private banks to invest into the Belene project in Bulgaria. The site is well within a seismic-risk area where an earthquake comparable to the devastation of two weeks ago already happened once in the 1970s. In 2008, thirteen major banks declined to provide credits for construction at Belene. The last to send out a rejection letter was France’s BNP Paribas, which, given that it is French, should have been expected to display a certain spirit of cooperation toward a nuclear energy project. It comes as no surprise, of course, that in order to save what contracts it can with other customers, Rosatom sets about assuring the world that Russian reactors will withstand earthquakes of any magnitude. But is there anything behind these claims but purely commercial interests? After the European Union’s Commissioner for Energy Guenther Oettinger’s statement that the Belene project should be stopped, Rosatom’s odds look slim indeed. 

The project in Turkey is meant for a no less earthquake-prone area than the one at Belene. On the one hand, Russia’s project in Akkuyu already received official backing from that country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan while on his visit to Moscow and meeting with Medvedev on March 16. But it would be a big mistake to believe that the fate of the Akkuyu project is sealed. Public opposition to nuclear power in Turkey is strong enough to have, for 30 years now, precluded one government after another from starting construction of any nuclear power plant. Furthermore, Turkey has a keen ear for anything sounding from the European Union and the voices of the member states are talking right now about abandoning nuclear power. Yes, France will stand its ground – but how long will it last if it is left alone? Even Poland, in Eastern Europe, though it said before that the decision to build its NPP was set in stone, is now inclined toward holding a referendum – the outcome of which can now easily be predicted with confidence. As per the third of Rosatom’s current projects in seismic-risk locations, in Armenia, there is little clarity as of yet if any changes await this deal, but after India and China’s statements, hardly anyone will be surprised if Yerevan, too, will politely decline. It is, in other words, very likely that Rosatom will never get a chance to test its new reactor design anywhere where there is a threat of seismic activity. And fortunately so.  

The ongoing reassessment of nuclear power across the globe will not only create problems for nuclear power plant projects in areas frequently afflicted with earthquakes. There will be other losses, as well. For Rosatom, this means declining profits and shrinking resources to be directed toward development inside Russia. Of the wide variety of new NPP projects announced for the future, only a handful of most precious ventures will be preserved, those whose value is predetermined, first and foremost, by their geographical location – namely, closer to the border with the European Union, where the hope is nurtured to convince member states to buy cheap power supplied by Russia. It remains an open question for now what the Europeans’ policy will be toward new nuclear reactors in their backyard, but it may prove just as hostile as the current sentiment toward nuclear power on the Union’s territory.

For Russia, all of this means that the much-heralded “nuclear renaissance” will likely turn into a “nuclear retreat.” In no more than a decade and a half, the share of energy produced by Russian nuclear power plants will start to decrease, while costs of decommissioning old reactors will, on the contrary, start to rise quickly, reaching into tens of billions of dollars. Meanwhile, there may likely be no time to replace the aged reactors with new ones fast enough to avoid cuts in nuclear power production.

But Rosatom’s current management has little interest in what will happen in fifteen years. New people serving a new government will face the task of dealing with the heritage being left by Kiriyenko’s team today. And when we, Russian taxpayers, are finally forced to foot the bill for the nuclear energy industry’s sixty or seventy years of development, the discussion of whether or not further use of the “peaceful atom” is expedient will come up naturally in Russia.

Then again, a much worse scenario is always possible, too – a major accident involving an old reactor and a massive release of radiation as a result. In that case, a push to phase out nuclear energy in Russia would be seen earlier than in the late 2020s.

The perfect moment to reconsider nuclear energy

Voices out of Rosatom, those voices that are trying to talk us into believing that Russia simply cannot do without nuclear power are none other but propagandists hired to convince society that we have no use for Chernobyl’s or Fukushima’s lessons. Yet Russia can very well do without nuclear power if it turns its attention to other technologies.

Increasing energy efficiency is one such option. The Russian Ministry of Energy says energy efficiency policies offer a 50 percent energy potential. In other words, Russia can save half of the energy it produces with no strain imposed on its prospects for economic growth. In fact, the amount of energy saved would be equivalent to the output of all nuclear power plants in operation in Russia times three. And that’s not counting renewable energy sources, which in Germany, for instance, cover 20 percent of energy demand in that country. By the way, Russia’s potential in renewable energy is even greater. But if some object to using wind power – very well, it doesn’t have to be wind farms. The point is that opportunities abound. The issue is in availing of them and doing it efficiently.

At this point, the nuclear accident at Fukushima is of a lesser scale than the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl. But its scale is large enough in and of itself to stop running endless comparisons. As of now, at least 200,000 people have been evacuated from the affected area, most of whom have lost their houses, their businesses, most everything that made their daily lives. Radioactive contamination has been found in Tokyo and in other parts of Japan, and Japan is probably going to face a hard blow to its export trade with the rest of the world. The exact scope of all that is happening and all that will follow only lends itself to a broad guess as of yet. Still, compared to Chernobyl, the events at Fukushima will have a much more pronounced impact on the world. In 1986, the West wanted very much to believe that the cause of the worst man-made disaster in humankind’s history was the low standards of safety Soviet nuclear power plants abided by. Clinging to this blind conviction for 25 years, the world lulled itself into a business-as-usual state of mind where no thought was allowed of a possibility of another nuclear crisis at a nuclear power plant – at any rate, not at one built to an American design in the most technologically developed country in the world.

The myth of “safe” nuclear energy has now burst for good. Reactors are dangerous irrespective of their designers or owners. The bet the Russian government has been placing so eagerly on turning the export of nuclear technologies into a major source of income, on par with oil and gas, is now proving a bust. These losses could have been avoided if Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin listened to environmentalists instead of slapping the labels of “spies” and “enemies of Russia” onto ecological activists. Enormous funds have already been spent out of the taxpayers’ pockets and it is unlikely that an official – and public – political decision will be made by the government to disavow its support of nuclear energy.

Russian authorities do not like to admit their mistakes. Nonetheless, right now is the perfect moment to follow other developed countries’ example and reconsider nuclear energy – to avoid even worse losses in the future.

Vladimir Slivyak is an ecological activist and co-chairs the Russian ecological group Ecodefense!. He is also on the board of directors of the US organisation Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and an expert with the Netherlands-based World Information Service on Energy (WISE).